Brian Ward, Martyn Bone, William A. Link, eds. The American South and the Atlantic World. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. 272 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-4437-8.
Reviewed by Brian Schoen (Ohio University)
Published on H-Diplo (March, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Charting Atlantic American Souths
Today’s scholarly world spins around multiple axes. With many exceptions, last century’s historians and literary scholars generally argued over how to map out what transpired on their chosen “turf.” They used a variety of different tools (social, economic, political, and cultural methodologies) and often vehemently disagreed about their findings, or even what needed to be mapped and the appropriate tools to use. Yet in the heat of those battles, they generally looked up to see a “North Star,” a real or imagined national narrative (generally North Atlantic in focus) that they were seeking to reinforce or redefine or perhaps to overturn entirely. To be sure, useful national histories continue to be written, even in (and perhaps because of) our own global age. But they are not nearly as insular and many academics view them as insufficient. We have become acutely sensitive to the fact that past peoples coexisted in several mental places, traveled between numerous physical ones, and inhabited localities that were themselves byproducts of and contributors to complicated transnational processes. That awareness has allowed us to begin uncovering connections missed in battles over usable national pasts or diverse literary traditions misleadingly walled within English departments. The challenge of mapping this multi-poled world (or worlds) is doing so from varied reference points (multiple North or even South Stars if you like) and in a method that would be relevant for other scholars who continue to primarily exist and write in still specialized subfields.
The editors and contributors to The American South and the Atlantic World admirably take up that challenge, charting their respective subjects down from the national to the regional history of the American South and outward to the rich and expanding literature on Atlantic studies, particularly to the southern regions of the Caribbean and Africa. As Brian Ward’s introduction and excellent first chapter make clear, they do so building on traditions of comparative work within both fields and by usefully drawing from increasingly sophisticated models for understanding the Atlantic world. Ward’s starting points are the “St. Kitts-born, British-raised, American-based writer Caryl Phillips’s autobiographical travel narrative, The Atlantic Sound, and David Armitage’s 2002 piece, ‘Three Concepts of Atlantic History.’” In the latter piece, well known to Atlantic historians, Armitage proposes three main approaches to the Atlantic world: “1. Circum-Atlantic--the transnational history of the Atlantic world; 2. Trans-Atlantic--the international history of [and comparisons within] the Atlantic world; 3. Cis-Atlantic history--national or regional history within an Atlantic context.” Though some of the pieces in the collection are comparative and five of the eleven chapters are historiographical in approach, most operate within this third category, tracing (à la Phillips) how particular individuals’ transatlantic experiences defined their worlds and what, in turn, their lives reveal to us about the “Atlantic South.”
Several authors take an approach that Ward suggests is especially needed: “going granular” and using particular themes, groups, and especially individuals to reveal developments across diverse spaces (p. 28). These biographical accounts, rooted in particular texts and individual experience, offer useful windows into underexplored people and nicely illustrate the Atlantic as a place in which exchange creates space for individual agency but space restricted by legal structures, colonial and postcolonial frameworks, and racial assumptions (even within groups seen as racially similar).
Natalie Zacek uses Virginian-born Daniel Parke’s (1664-1710) life and ill-fated appointment as royal governor of the British Leeward Islands to demonstrate how fragile and uncertain politics could be within the British imperial system. Connections to powerful friends of Queen Anne led to Parke’s ascension, but his aristocratic demeanor, arrogance, and promiscuity prevented him from successfully walking “a very thin line between being perceived as a dictator and developing a reputation as a weakling” (p. 73). The fall of his patrons in London and the rise of disgruntled and proud subjects in the Leeward Islands led to his murder at the hand of fellow colonial subjects.
Jennifer K. Snyder’s intimate account of the family and slaves of South Carolina Loyalist James Moncrief provides a counter-narrative to prevailing ideas of Atlantic crossings and Loyalist studies. Moncrief’s slaves, many promised freedom upon leaving Revolutionary South Carolina, found themselves resettled and re-enslaved on the Mosquito Coast. Some escaped but most were removed and sold in Jamaica, only to again be resettled on plantations in Belize. Snyder’s story poignantly illustrates the “fragility of black freedom,” reminding scholars that mobility does not equal liberty and that “all Atlantic world migrations, encounters, and settlements eventually played out in a series of compromises and fusions, victories and defeats, as reluctant and willing migrants sought to survive and, as best they could, prosper in the New World.” (pp. 98-99, 84)
The complicated nature of post-Revolutionary freedom and slavery also lie at the heart of legal historian Martha S. Jones’s illuminating look at the case of Jean Baptiste. Baptiste was an eight-year-old black refugee of the Haitian Revolution eventually settled in Baltimore. Treated as a slave dependent, Baptiste learned that French proclamations in effect during his time in Haiti in the 1790s would have made him a free man. Two decades after his arrival on U.S. shores under threats of removal to southwestern slave markets, he initiated a freedom suit. Baltimore jurists had to contemplate and contest the legal meaning of freedom not primarily based on Maryland law, but on French colonial law and their own reading of overly reified and racialized English accounts of the Haitian Revolution.
Leigh Anne Duck’s account of African Methodist Episcopal bishop to South Africa Levi Jenkins Coppin’s writings and photographs from the early twentieth century further illustrates how Atlantic conceptual understandings of race are seldom in sync with complicated realities. A careful reading of the Baltimore-born Coppin’s photographs and two major writings reveal that even as Coppin “sought to challenge white supremacy and racist misrepresentation by expanding cultural similarity; in the process he occasionally demeaned the practices of African and diasporic people.” According to Duck, even well-intentioned individuals have difficulty offering “effective representational strategies for challenging oppression” within the Atlantic world and U.S. South (pp. 189-190). Kathleen M. Gough’s comparative study of the efforts of Floridian Zora Neale Hurston and Ireland’s Lady Augusta Gregory to collect and expand black and Irish folklore in the early twentieth century also highlights that challenge, especially for women writers and ethnographers. Hurston’s and Gregory’s efforts to preserve and forward black and green national identities generated cultural anxieties and were generally forgotten for decades.
Natanya Keisha Duncan’s examination of Princess Laura Kofey, an Accra-born colonization promoter, furthers this theme of anxiety and culture within the Atlantic and especially within black nationalism, a major subtheme of this volume. Between 1926 and 1928, Kofey used her Florida base to promote African American immigration to her native Ghana, often in support of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) “back to Africa” movement. She sought to foster economic and cultural exchange, and like Coppin hoped to undermine views of Africa as a backward continent. Yet unlike Coppin (and possibly even Garvey), her “authenticity” in dress and background drew a large following, one that eventually alienated her from Garvey’s lieutenants and likely led to her assassination.
Other chapters join Ward’s to offer invaluable historiographic perspectives on particular subjects within the field, most of which also challenge prevailing national or regional narratives. Jon Sensbach’s review of early religion and the deployment of Omar ibn Said, an African-born Muslim, leads to the provocative claim that at least through the early nineteenth century the “presence of so many often-discordant faiths made for a landscape of raucous spiritual competition … [a stage] for creative fusion and re-visioning of ancient faiths” (p. 50). Whereas many former scholars, like Donald Mathews, see the ascension of evangelical faith traditions as the spread of religiosity, Sensbach sees “a tragic narrative of declension,” whereby a pluralist religious world is lost only to be rediscovered in the twentieth century (p. 56). Perhaps ironically, awareness of Sensbach’s colonial religious alternatives reinforces the importance of explaining how and why evangelical faith traditions rose in the early national period.
Always insightful, Trevor Burnard offers an instructive to nineteenth-century historians suggesting they more broadly apply Atlantic methodologies to histories of the nineteenth-century South and United States. He joins Jack Greene in urging for something akin to a colonial takeover of later periods, emphasizing that both fields have something to gain by collaboration. Colonialists gain greater relevance at a vulnerable moment when interests in their subjects have flagged and nineteenth-century historians gain new lenses within which to examine their fields. As a product of such a move myself, I agree with the value, and indeed there are encouraging signs that the movement has already begun with a larger number of recent works dealing with antebellum slavery in a broader context and aided by a Civil War sesquicentennial that has generated several conferences on the war’s international context. At the same time, Burnard rightfully warns against a re-periodization that might deepen rifts between nineteenth- and twentieth-century history. That none of the chapters written by historians deal with the twentieth century reinforces that concern.
Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie’s provocative piece applies Burnard’s mandate to a central question of nineteenth-century U.S. history: “Was U.S. Emancipation Exceptional in the Atlantic, or Other Worlds?” In short, Kerr-Ritchie’s answer is no, or at least not in the ways that Americans like to talk about it. Here, Kerr-Ritche hunts big historiographic game, interestingly suggesting that even deans of American southern history who have made relevant comparison--C. Vann Woodward, Eric Foner, George Frederickson, Stanley Engerman, and Steven Hahn--ultimately reinforce a sense of American exceptionalism. Comparing American’s Civil War era to developments throughout the Caribbean rim, but especially in Peru, Cuba, and Haiti, Kerr-Ritchie concludes (without fully developing the points) that emancipation in the United States was not any more violent than other emancipationist moments and did not usher in a particularly “unique and dramatic experiment in interracial democracy” (p. 152).
Keith Cartwright’s cleverly written and wide-ranging concluding essay picks up several strands from the volume, reminding readers of how various perspectives on the Atlantic have created historical and literary imaginations that inform or should inform our scholarship. He cautions against moving too much toward a planetary history (a challenge several authors also reference), urging that their remains much work to be done to cultivate understanding within the Atlantic, especially within literary and cultural studies. Cartwright also highlights a major thread of the volume noting that Atlantic studies has shifted to the South and thus raised the challenge of articulating “new modes of cross-cultural initiatory agency rising out of the American South and out of global souths’ creole countercultures of modernity” (p. 255).
Though these chapters do not directly deal with diplomatic history, several demonstrate that the Atlantic provided opportunities and pitfalls for personal or public diplomacy. Zacek’s Parke, Duck’s Coppin, and Duncan’s Kofey each derived political power from their unique access to privileged people or places in the Atlantic. Yet none effectively navigated local dynamics or populations to optimize that influence, highlighting how precarious power and privilege are in multi-poled worlds. This volume has a particular South Atlantic orientation with Africa and the Caribbean central to the storylines. Readers interested in the American South’s relationship with the North Atlantic, including a greater emphasis on diplomatic history, would do well to supplement this with Cornelis A. van Minnen and Manfred Berg’s 2013 The U.S. South and Europe: Transatlantic Relations in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
In its individual parts and its whole, this volume is worthy of an audience, especially scholars of southern and Atlantic history and literature as well as those interested in African American or African diaspora studies. Several of the historiographic essays will be particularly valuable for graduate students and scholars seeking introductions to or very sophisticated perspectives on burgeoning fields. Though a volume like this, especially giving its focus on “the granular,” cannot and does not claim to give a comprehensive overview of the many interpretive constellations informing these fields, it does offer a good sense of the key questions and opportunities facing southernists and Atlanticists pursuing their shared interests.
. David Armitage, “Three Concepts of Atlantic History,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 15.
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Brian Schoen. Review of Ward, Brian; Bone, Martyn; Link, William A., eds., The American South and the Atlantic World.
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